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Can music make your food taste better? The Big Feastival investigates with Dr Deroy

When you bite into a rich pain au chocolat, do you see red? Does the treat conjure memories of deep, soulful songs? Crossmodal correspondence is here to say, you’re not alone. The term refers to the arbitrary connections that people make between dimensions of experience, associations that cannot be explained by pointing to a common source. 

The Big Feastival turned to Dr Ophelia Deroy to dive deeper into the surprising connections between sound and flavour. Dr Deroy specialises in philosophy of the mind and cognitive neurosciences. She has worked extensively on issues relating to multisensory perception and crossmodal correspondence. The connections between mental imagery and physical perception are at the core of her exploration.  

Dr Deroy speaks to us about the connection between sound and flavour, a link that is celebrated in the upcoming sounds and tastes of The Big Feastival, opening August 25.

The Big Feastival Dr. Deroy

You’d expect people to associate vanilla with the colour brown, but it’s actually most associated with yellow and orange.

What external factors affect flavour?

Flavour is a multi-sensory construct. You have taste, touch, temperature, texture and smell. This multisensory construct expands to include the external context as well. The external smell, colour and shape of a space are all factors affecting your flavour expectation. We’ve done some research showing that even what you touch while you eat can affect the experience.

You have done extensive work analysing the connection between colour and flavour. You are now venturing into sound and flavour, what has led you into this new exploration?

Nothing is surprising about the connection between yellow and lemon: that’s what we call semantic or object-based associations. What is surprising and intriguing is that some things don’t follow these predictable rules. For example, bright and dark patches may change the way you smell things. You’d expect people to associate vanilla with the colour brown, but it’s actually most associated with yellow and orange. It’s looking at these more arbitrary connections between colours and flavours that led me to think that maybe arbitrary connections could also be discovered among sounds and flavours. The connection between sound and flavour is actually more surprising than the one between colour and flavour!

The big Feastival Dr. Deroy

The fact that a low-pitch sound makes your chocolate taste more bitter is surprising.

If research establishes crossmodal correspondence between colour/flavour and sound/flavour, will we be able to draw conclusions about the relationship between colour and sound?  

That’s a very good question! There are many musicians that say they compose their music through colours. We know – independently of flavour – about the connection between colours and sounds. However, if you present food with music you can change the taste. If you also present visual cues (like colours) to the experience you can actually boost the effect the sound is having on the food. We call this the super additive effect.

What was interesting about working with The Big Feastival is that it gave me the opportunity to speak with chefs and musicians who offer further insights into these arbitrary connections. You need to have an artistic intuition to know what to experiment with.

Should we be surprised that there appear to be links between our sensory domains?

We should be surprised by these arbitrary links between our sensory domains! The fact that a low-pitch sound makes your chocolate taste more bitter is surprising.

Dr Deroy The Big Feastival

Are there specific sounds shown to worsen or improve the food experience?

A lot of instances are taste-specific. You can make a flavour more or less intense with different sounds. One thing we know is that a very fast tempo makes people eat faster. This is something that fast food restaurants know: they combine uptempo music with red interiors, which provokes a high-level of arousal and ensures clients leave quickly.

Do most people respond the same way to sound/food combinations?

When you look at the general rules, yes. That’s how we can establish correspondence in our research. The research I’ve done with colour and flavour shows some result variation when you go outside this culture, but within Western culture, results tend to be consistent.

The Big Feastival Dr Deroy

Music changes what you taste, so the combination you prefer will depend on how you like your food.

Have you experienced a favourite pairing of food and sound to date? If so, what has it been?

If I can include wine… [laughs] It’s really incredible what you can do with a glass of champagne and different music. A good champagne has nice complexity: sweetness, acidity, fruity notes and more. The feeling of liveliness and the intensity of the fizz are really changed by music. I’ve tried combining champagne with jazz… It was simply fantastic.

What are some successful sound/food combinations that people can try at home to enhance their dining experience?

The most convincing cases of flavour amplification tend to involve a single food with a bit of complexity (i.e. champagne, not burgers). You must then experiment with high-pitch and low-pitch pieces. Music changes what you taste, so the combination you prefer will depend on how you like your food. We call the process of enhancing food with music sonic seasoning.” With music, you can add “maximum seasoning” to your food. It’s up to people to experiment and determine what they prefer.

The Big Feastival Dr. Deroy

Is there an unexpected fun fact you have come across in your research?

Something I’m really interested in at the moment is that these arbitrary connections are much stronger in children. As adults, our sense of rationality has made us a bit sceptical, but children just get it! They don’t have all of our intellectual doubts, and they confirm the rules that we find in adults, but they seem to have a much stronger effect.

Why does it matter to show that crossmodal correspondence exists?

I think there is something very important about how we build cultural objects. In the natural world, all our experiences are multisensory. On the other hand, all experiences we create through culture (music, painting, writing) are limited to one sensory modality. What is interesting is that even as separate creations they maintain hidden connections with each other. This shows that the power of associations goes well beyond those relating to specific objects. It teaches us that our creative accomplishments have a very multi sensory component.

The Big Feastival – the UK’s leading music and food festival – takes place August 25-27 in the Cotswolds. Check out the lineup and the food, or get your tickets here.